AmeriCorps Opens Up New VISTAs for Downtown Delaware

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Downtown Delaware, the statewide Main Street coordinating program housed in the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO), is dedicated to revitalizing eight designated Main Street communities and commercial business districts statewide. The program also helps local entrepreneurs grow and expand downtown. It’s a big job and there’s always more work to be done.

Last year, Downtown Delaware got some extra help. The program hired three members of AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA) for one year. The hires were made possible by a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, whose primary mission is to create and maintain self-sustaining programs to alleviate poverty. During their year of service with Downtown Delaware, the AmeriCorps VISTA members made a significant impact on the lives of many Delawareans by planning and implementing key community development initiatives that supported the missions of all three organizations.

Student Business Mentoring Program, Milford, Delaware

Downtown Delaware VISTA volunteer Janice Neiman developed the first project to meet the state’s desire to grow an entrepreneurial ecosystem and provide greater career and educational options for children from low-income families. The purpose of the highly interactive Milford Business Mentoring Program (MBMP) was to expose entrepreneurially minded high school students to real-world, small business ownership.

Volunteer entrepreneurs and business owners from downtown Milford mentored the students and engaged them in inspirational discussions, thus offering an innovative method of learning outside of the classroom. Inherent to the program was the strong recommendation that students pursue higher education to achieve their entrepreneurial goals, rather than jumping right into business ownership after high school. 

Seven aspiring entrepreneurs from Milford Senior High School participated in the MBMP, which involved four lively, interactive sessions focused on entrepreneurship topics. The sessions were followed by mentor pairings with four downtown Milford merchants. The students spent eight weeks shadowing the entrepreneurs and speaking frankly with them about their business ownership challenges and advantages, their lifestyles, and the risks associated with entrepreneurism. Students were asked to share their thoughts weekly on a blog set up by MBMP (http://mbmp2011.blogspot.com/).

In the MBMP exit evaluations, four of the participating students, some of whom had never visited the downtown businesses before the program, expressed interest in applying for a job at their respective mentors’ businesses. Most indicated that they plan to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, now that they had the benefit of a mentor and a touch of real-world awareness. The small business mentors also expressed a sense of fulfillment in giving back to their community by guiding these young, aspiring entrepreneurs on their paths.

Programs like the MBMP play an important role in the development of future entrepreneurs by showing young people that entrepreneurship is a viable career option and providing resources to help them reach their goals. These mentoring programs also help Main Street cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit early through initiatives that help prevent brain-drain—students are encouraged to return downtown after college as experienced entrepreneurs, ready to take on the full challenges of entrepreneurship, while supporting their hometowns.

Capping off Janice’s VISTA term with Downtown Delaware was receipt of a $3,000 grant from the Delaware Mentoring Council that will enable Downtown Milford, Inc., to continue the program throughout the next school year. The grant will primarily be used as a stipend for a volunteer coordinator to oversee the program.

Business Retention and Volunteerism

Another VISTA member, Alex Maroselli, focused her attention on a project to help local Main Street programs in two key areas: business retention and volunteerism. First, she developed a Business Owner Survey (BOS) to learn more about demographics, business operations, training needs, current customer trends, and merchant thoughts about the local Main Street organizations in Rehoboth Beach and Middletown. After the surveys were analyzed, Maroselli gave the towns a list of business retention recommendations, such as a joint advertising initiative, bounce-back coupons, and establishment of a bi-monthly merchants meeting. The survey also revealed potential training topics, such as downtown relationship-building, incorporating eCommerce sales and marketing, merchandising, and window display, etc. Other Delaware Main Street towns plan to conduct the Business Owner Survey in the near future to better understand the needs of their business owners and engage them in strategies to assist all downtown businesses. A few examples of the survey’s findings and recommendations are listed below:

Business Owner Survey Finding #1:

  • Approximately 39 percent of business owners are unsure of their post-lease plans.


Recommendations:

  • Recruit one or two trusted volunteers to become “Property Liaisons.
  • Ask “Property Liaisons” to systematically develop trusted relationships with business owners and property owners to better understand their future endeavors. Through this, the local Main Street program has the opportunity to offer guidance and support, helping the business stay or relocate, while being in a position to anticipate vacancy and shape future tenancy. 

Business Owner Survey Findings #2:

  • 92 percent of participating businesses are independently owned.
  • 71 percent of the participating businesses claim to have a positive current business health status: “thriving and expanding” (24 percent) or “stable and sustainable” (47 percent).
  • Throughout the past three years, participating business owners claim an increase in foot traffic, customer base, and profit.
  • Of the survey respondents (business owners), 54 percent of businesses have been operating for more than 10 years. 


Recommendations:

  • Create a welcome packet for prospective business owners. It should highlight the above findings.
  • Consider asking business owners who have been operating for more than 10 years to mentor new business owners.


Believing that volunteer development is crucial to the success of Main Street programs, Maroselli next focused on creating a Volunteer Manual. With volunteerism dwindling in many communities, the implementation of a more deliberate process could help Main Street engage new volunteers. The customizable manual Maroselli developed includes policies and procedures for a sustainable volunteer program, including volunteer recruitment, development, management, and recognition. In addition, it also provides nine volunteer forms, including Sample Volunteer Descriptions, Adolescent Application, Interview Questions, Volunteer Media Release, and a Volunteer Time Sheet.

Communities can customize the manual to suit their organization, while creating a more structured, efficient volunteer development process. (Visit the National Trust Main Street Center’s Solution Center and select Volunteer Management under “filter by topic” and download a copy of this Volunteer Manual, along with instructions to help you customize it for your community.) Maroselli recommends that a volunteer be recruited to fill the position of “Volunteer Administrator,” and, working in concert with the program manager, oversee this process. 

Launching an Urban Farmers Market

The project of a third VISTA, J.R. Ennis, grew out of a group VISTA project. Early in their work, the three VISTAs noted that unlike most traditional Main Street communities in Delaware, the north Wilmington neighborhood of Brandywine Village lacked sufficient community support for its Main Street program. The Village also has unique challenges of poverty and security, yet there exists a dense population of residents who could be engaged in the revitalization process, which would engender pride in the community.

In the fall of 2010, Greater Brandywine Village Revitalization, Inc., (GBVR) presented the VISTAs with the idea—and challenge—of creating an urban farmers market that would simultaneously engage the community and create alternative healthy food options for its residents. The challenge in launching such a project was that GBVR did not have a strong track record of successful events or volunteer engagement on which it could build. So over nine months, the VISTAs collaborated with GBVR to implement a series of events to gradually build volunteer support and community interest, in preparation for ultimately establishing a farmers market.

The first in the series of events was entitled Light Up the Village! This turned out to be a small-scale but very meaningful success. The holiday celebration engaged 70 community members as volunteers. Two local church choirs performed carols and five vendors that were recruited for the festivities soon became established partners for future events.

By collecting information from attendees, GBVR established a volunteer base of 25 community members who could be recruited for future events. A coat drive on Martin Luther King Day was followed by A Healthy Taste of Brandywine in early spring. During this event, more than 12 vendors endorsed a healthy lifestyle, while attendees enjoyed jazz performed by a local band. More than 180 people attended, giving GBVR a chance to recruit more volunteers.

The group was now ready to launch its farmers market. On behalf of the Downtown Delaware VISTAs, J.R. Ennis worked diligently from January through June with GBVR Board President Olakunle Oludina, Executive Director Steve Kuzmicki, Assistant Manager Akira Grenardo, and several board members to prepare for the event. With the help of numerous community partners and volunteers, Village Fresh: An Urban Farmers Market and Community Garden Project was launched in June 2011. Nine local vendors from the Greater Brandywine Village community provided fresh produce and other food items, along with jewelry and accessories, crafts, housewares, herbs, and flowers.

Since the launch of Village Fresh in June, GBVR has continued to hold the market bi-weekly. To further sustain the local effort, the Delaware Center for Horticulture has remained engaged and has selected several locations throughout the community to host raised community garden beds. These beds will be used to teach residents of the community how to grow their own produce and sell it at the weekly farmers market, thus capitalizing on the local food hub opportunity while planting the entrepreneurial “seed” to grow local businesses.

Ennis’s tenure with Downtown Delaware was capped by the announcement that a $10,000 Speer Trust Foundation grant had been awarded to GBVR, Inc., to hire a market manager and cover other future costs to make the market operationally sustainable. Village Fresh is one of the catalysts that is making GBVR’s tagline “Historic Past & Vibrant Future” come true.

Throughout the year, the Downtown Delaware VISTAs effectively worked within the DEDO, Delaware Main Street, and AmeriCorps VISTA missions to create meaningful, sustainable projects that encouraged the spirit of entrepreneurism, supported volunteerism, and actively sought to alleviate community poverty. Several of these pilot projects are structured so that their work plans, templates, and processes can easily be adapted by other communities. All projects have been effectively handed off to the local programs, but nicely leave behind each VISTA’s handprint.

For more information about the VISTA program, visit http://www.americorps.gov/about/programs/vista.asp.